Technology of Albumen  Photography

Albumen Photography's Place in History

Albumen prints were the new photographic technology in the middle of the 19th century. This period was squarely within the European Industrial Revolution and about 25 years after the discovery of light sensitive materials by Niepce and Daguerre. More on the topic. Also, see below.

Manufacture of Albumen Prints

Click here for articles from the 19th Century, that deal with general aspects of making albumen prints, negatives and variants such as prints on ivory. Somewhat unique are the articles on selecting the appropriate paper base and how to prepare for albumen coating. Notable among these are two anonymous articles from 1859 A Visit to a Photographic Paper Establishment from the Photographic News and Photographic Papers from the Photographic Journal. This collection of articles also makes clear that albumen was used for more than positive printing and had a significant impact on the development and perfection of techniques for making negatives on glass.

Image Permanence and Defects

Issues of image permanence, particularly image fading and highlight staining, were a concern for serious albumen printers in the 19th Century. In particular John Spiller and Matthew Carey Lea examined the chemical causes for these characteristic defects in some depth. Their insightful work forms the basis of much of our contemporary understanding on the permanence of silver-based images. Other useful articles present tips for avoiding the more common pitfalls encountered by photographers when printing on albumen paper.

20th Century authors dealing with stability of albumen photographs look at both chemical degradation (fading and staining) but also physical deterioration. A well-known physical attribute of albumen prints is the overall pattern of cracking found in the albumen layer, usually apparent under low magnification. Several conservation-related articles explain the origins of these cracks and describe the impact of conservation treatment on albumen cracking.

Cameras & Optics

Désiré van Monckhoven provides an extremely thorough examination on the history, technology and science of optics as understood in the mid-19th Century. His work is beautifully and copiously illustrated, especially his Chapter 7 entitled "Photographic Cameras, Lenses, etc." His chapter on stereo photography is particularly valuable as albumen stereo cards were made in huge numbers from the 1850's.

Photographic Chemistry

A selection of Library materials dealing with photographic chemistry providing either a broad overview of the subject or covering issues that are not covered elsewhere in the Library. Examples include: John Towler's look at "Printing by Development (Chapter 34); James Reilly's, The Albumen & Salted Paper Book; Blanquart-Evrard, Louis-Désiré On the Intervention...; and M. Guinet's On the Tinctorial Properties of Albumen . These and others give detailed information and interesting insights into 19th Century photographic research.

Albumen Negatives and Negatives for Albumen Prints

The use of albumen is generally associated with the production of positive prints. However, during the 1850's and early 1860's, albumen was coated onto glass for the production of negatives. Ultimately, use of albumen for the production negatives was abandoned, likely due to long-exposure times, working difficulties and inconstant results relative to the wet-plate collodion process. One notable achievement, however, is that it appears the use of albumen allowed an early form of dry-plate photography. In 1857, an author identified only as "Mr. Cash" presents a detailed account of the use of albumen for the purposes of making negatives praising the "keeping properties" of albumen negatives.

Aside from uses of albumen on glass, the articles presented below describe the wet-plate collodion process for negative making. By far, most albumen photographs were produced from wet-plate negatives. Both Towler and van Monckhoven described the wet-plate method in exacting detail.

Albumen Photography's Place in History

Albumen prints were the new photographic technology in the middle of the 19th century. This period was squarely within the European Industrial Revolution and about 25 years after the discovery of light sensitive materials by Niepce and Daguerre.

Large scale use of albumenized paper began in 1850 and extended through 1890, although craftspersons (and hobbyist) still make excellent albumen prints today. In the Industrial Revolution, technologies and materials were being actively explored and developed at a blistering pace. This is analogous to our current digital revolution, allowing for today's massive increase in communications abilities.

Beginnings of Photography, Before Albumen Prints

Joseph Nicéphore Niepce, a French technologist showed (1822-26) that an image could be fixed by light (bitumen on pewter plate) and that multiple paper copies (etchings) could be made from a light-fixed image. Niepce was trying to find a way to transfer images from paper to a lithography plate (his business) after his artistically talented son, who did the drawing, went off to fulfill his military service obligations. Developing a light-based etching process was a monumental leap forward in technology. While the images were not made in a camera and were contact prints of a sort, they could not be said to be either high resolution or possess a significant tonal range. Better resolution in the photo-based printing process would follow 25+ later (1852) when Talbot invented the printing screen by superimposing a thin, finely woven, cloth between a leaf and the sensitive plate. The screen provided by the weave introduced greater tonal range to the light-based etching process. In 1829, Niepce entered into an information sharing arrangement with Daguerre.

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre developed a high-precision light-fixed image in 1837/8: the Daguerreotype. This technology had very high resolution and broad tonal range, but had two unfortunate drawbacks, 1) only one image per exposure and 2) a very narrow viewing angle.

Henry Fox Talbot developed paper-based photographic images (1839) over a six year period from 1833 to 1839. Talbot called them Photogenic Drawings because the technological concept grew out of his drawings using Wollaston's camera lucida at Lake Como. Later they were known as Talbotypes and Calotypes. Talbotypes had drawbacks such as low resolution (oil soaked paper is not as transparent as glass) and the tonal range was narrower than the Daguerreotype.

Albumen Prints Invented

Désiré Blanquart-Evrard developed Albumen Prints in 1850 while using Talbot's techniques, building upon Talbot's work. Albumen Prints quickly became the print medium of choice because of their fine resolution and extended tonal range. Commonly used to make single prints from negatives, they were also used for reproducing book illustrations (identical multiples) and were advertised as prints "devoid of metallic glare," from which, high resolution multiples could be made in an "unlimited extent with very little expense." Both professionals and amateurs used Albumen Prints with great ease and success. Until the 1850's, professional photographers used the high resolution medium of Daguerreotypes while amateurs used the low resolution medium of Talbotypes/Calotypes. The phenomenal success of Albumen Prints was due to a technological leveling of amateurs and professionals. This is similar to what is going on in digital imaging world today.

Negatives printed onto albumen paper were either paper-based Talbotypes/Calotypes or Collation Wet-Plate negatives. Collodion (wet) negatives were made workable by F. Scott Archer (English) in 1848 and dominated photography between 1855 and 1881. They quickly displaced paper negatives because of their high resolution due to the glass carrier. Collodion Wet-Plate negatives were made as needed, on the spot, and were still "wet" when loaded and exposed in the camera.

Albumen Prints were printed from Collodion negatives in wooden printing frames commonly exposed to direct sunlight. On a bright overcast day, the exposure was about 1-5 minutes. The print was removed from the frame and processed in lit room; it was common from the prints to be mounted after processing.

Before Photography

Prior to Niepce, multiple images were printed from hand carved, engraved, etched, or drawn lithographic stones back to the early 15th century in the West and 2nd century in the East. Drawing with a stylus or ink nib inside a camera obsucra or lucida extends back to the second half on the 16th century, allowing skilled workers to produce "handmade" multiples. Multiple drawings would be traced from the same image projected on the focal plane (paper) of the camera. Their similarity was based on the skill of the draftsperson.

Printing multiples from the same woodblock can be traced to 6th century China but the earliest known woodblock prints are from 8th century Japan. Woodblock printing is the earliest analog to photography.

Creating a multiple image by pulling a rubbing from a surface-carved column or printing with a seal can be traced back to 2nd century China largely because the Chinese eunuch Ts'ai Lun invented paper in 105 AD and the Chinese had water-based inks from the 2500 BC. The invention of movable type is now credited to a Chinese alchemist Pi Sheng between 1041-48 (one set of characters made from hardened clay and glue). The Chinese also developed carved wood type in 1313.

Fifteenth century European metal workers (founders, die-cutters, gold & silversmiths) were familiar with casting metal into dies or impression from dies. Metalographic printing plates, developed in 1430, are lead-alloy plates pulled from die impressed pages composed in clay (or non-alloyed lead) from single letter dies. They are probably the forerunner of typography. Johannes Guttenberg is currently credited, in 1450, with developing typography, which brings together a printing press and identical lead-alloy type for printing religious text to spread the word of God; a major cultural driving force. European printing of multiple images, pulled from an engraved metal plate, is credited to Coster starting with his experiments in 1423. Playing cards and religious flyers were the common output.

When the capture of images made with light was discovered by Niepce in 1822, multiple, almost identical (depending on exposure and processing), images could be made for the first time. The possibility of creating images without the rigorous training of a draftsman, captured the imagination of the technologically inclined during the Industrial Revolution from the working person, to the Sunday nature lover and the aristocrat: male and female. Albumen Prints made the process of producing high resolution, broad tonal range images, in multiples, simple and economical.

Today, "digital image files" complete the evloution of the "creation of multiples" goal. They allow perfect copy to be made from any generation of the digital file. The drawback is that the file has to be migrated to new storage media before the storage format is obsolete or fails.

History of Albumen Photography

This section of the library presents accounts of the history photography and of albumen printing, from 19th and 20th Century perspectives. Towler (1864) and van Monckhoven (1863) both write extensively on the history and pre-history of photography. Towler traces the pre-history of photography back to the discovery of light sensitivity of silver halides attributed to the 18th century chemist Charles William Scheele. Working forward he describes in some details the experiments by Josiah Wedgewwod, Humprey Davy, Joseph-Nicéphore Niepce and Louis Jaques Mande Daguerre. He then goes on to discuss the work of his more immediate antecedents and peers, including William Henry Fox Talbot, John Herschel, Mungo Ponton and Niepce de St. Victor. Of tremendous historical value even by contemporary standards, Tower's history of photography seems to have been largely integrated into the canon of contemporary thought on the origins of the medium. The focus of van Monckhoven's writing on the history of photography is to describe the development of the major photographic processes with special emphasis on individual achievements and innovations.

The historical aspects of James Reilly's Albumen and Salted Book (1980) deal primarily with the history of albumen as a photographic material, placing most emphasis on the history and development of albumen paper. Of particular note, Reilly credits the first appearance of albumen in photography to the otherwise unidentified "H.L" writing in the The Athenaeum in 1839 -- only three months after the first account of a practical method of paper-based photography presented by William Henry Fox Talbot. He unequivocally attributes the "invention" of the albumen printing to Louis Désiré Blanquart-Evrard in 1850.

Robert Sobieszek's British Masters of the Albumen Print provides a technical description as context for his historical account of albumen printing in the latter half of the 19th Century. Sobieszek describes how the medium became more democratic with the introduction of factory prepared albumen paper. He describes the effect of this democratization as producing not only "quintessentially Victorian pictures" but "some exceptionality modern and essentially pure photographic images." His catalog essay is richly illustrated using several sheets of microfiche -- here represented by numerous JPEG images.

Variants on the Albumen Print

The history of photography does not follow a linear path where one photographic process displaces another after a period of neat and logical progression. Particularly in the 19th Century, before the industrialization of photography, individuals were constantly experimenting with materials and techniques. In the case of arrowroot paper and albumen positives on glass, early experiments attracted followers and the processes found a niche -- some of Eugène Atget's finest late prints were made in the 20th Century on arrowroot paper. In other cases, such as the "Taupenot" process of 1884, the variant becomes more of a footnote or oddity. [A process for making dry-collodion negatives through the addition of albumen, the Taupenot process was never adopted into common practice though a keyword search of this site on "Taupenot" produces at least six hits, indicating that the process did attract a fair amount of attention at the end of the 19th Century.]